In today’s article, Bridget Malia talks about the disparities between care for physical and mental health. Bridget is a sixth form student in Stockport and LGBT officer for Stockport Young Labour.
If you’ve never suffered a mental illness- and I sincerely hope you haven’t- it can be hard to understand how frustrating, and indeed harmful, the deep-seated problems in mental health care in the NHS are. If, for instance, you broke your leg, you can expect to be X-rayed, put in a cast and given a pair of crutches within at most a few days. After all, walking around on a broken leg is not only painful but dangerous. It’s a mystery, then, that the same approach is not standard for mental health.
One of the main side-effects of any mental health problem is a deep sense of hopelessness. Conditions like anxiety and depression give sufferers a completely skewed sense of time. Five minutes can feel like seconds and hours at the same time. A month feels like a century, the future feels like it’s never going to happen and that it’s hurtling towards you like a freight train. If you’ve been told that there’s an 18- month waiting list for the local mental health service (as was the case when I was referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, or CAMHS), that is the same as being told that you’re going to be stuck feeling as terrible as you do for a year and a half, which might as well be forever. Just like how walking around on a broken leg causes agony and further damage to the limb in question, having to survive with a mental health problem with absolutely no professional support can be devastating.
The situation is even worse for patients requiring inpatient care. Serious conditions such as eating disorders, types of psychosis and schizophrenia often require hospitalisation for intensive courses of treatment. With most physical complaints, patients can expect to be treated in their local hospital, close to home and family. Not so for mental health patients, who can be sent hundreds of miles and across borders for treatment. The support of family and friends, and their involvement in therapy, is widely acknowledged to be of vital importance to a good prognosis, but this is becoming harder and harder in an increasingly stretched NHS.
I’m on the more fortunate end of the mental health spectrum. I have the common, bog-standard combination of anxiety and depression, both of which can be treated with inexpensive drugs and slightly more expensive talking therapy. I’ve been in the system since I was 12, meaning I’m practically part of the furniture in Stepping Hill Hospital’s mental health outpatients units. Shuffling me from therapist to therapist and service to service simply requires a conversation between people who share an office. I have an in with psychiatrists to get me moved up waiting lists. I have a supportive, loving family and an understanding college. I live in comfortable middle- class suburbia; I’m otherwise healthy and not wanting for anything.
There are others who aren’t anything like as lucky as I am, however. The poor, the lonely, the elderly, the young, those with serious and complex conditions, addicts, those with physical disabilities- they’re the ones in real trouble. As the Tories’ cuts bite harder and decimate the NHS further, these are the ones who will slip through the gaps. I won’t beat around the bush: the mentally ill will die. That’s another side effect- both of mental illness and of a system with no time or compassion for people on the edge.